The Sincere Senator Smith

12/12/2006 03:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

About this Gordon Smith guy.

As a ten-year Oregon resident, my first lesson in Oregon politics didn't come from any one here. It came on my radio talk show (at the time) shortly after I moved here, and it didn't come from an Oregonian. It came from Washington (DC) writer Bill Thomas. I asked him about the Oregon Congressional delegation. You know, the dirt. He said, "Oh, well there isn't much. Oregon is one of those 'good government' states."

We have our right wing crazies here, of course, but they always lose. They've done their damage over the years; spending limits and mandatory sentencing, both of which have proven failures. This year's election saw the rejection of a conservative Republican and the re-election of the current governor who is best known for his bowling. Hardly anyone can think of a single thing he's ever done. In Oregon, that's not necessarily a bad thing, after all, the legislature meets every TWO years.

We tend to use government here in the way it was intended, to improve things. Although Portland has been living off its gloriously innovative recent past, it's still way ahead of much of the country in the way it decides how things get done. There is less of that now, as the condo class takes over the city, but still people flock here because it's just a better place to live.

There are lots of things on Gordon Smith's minus side. Oregon is the least churched state in the country, but we're tolerant and most of us tolerate Smith's belief in Mormon mythology. We didn't like his recent support of racist Trent Lott's quest to return to House leadership.

Smith isn't easy to pigeon-hole. He's literally from the Udall family. Mo is listed as a "double cousin" (whatever that is). If there is such a thing as the Republican center, he's in it.

He's generally pro gay rights but voted against gay marriage. He's generally with the administration but not on stem cell research. He was against the Oregon physician-assisted suicide law, but sponsored the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, authorizing $82 million for suicide-prevention and awareness programs at colleges. The act is named after his son who killed himself. It was around that time that he and Oregon's other Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, became close friends. Remember the striking video of Wyden consoling Smith on the floor of the Senate?

I sat I his office in 2000 when I was working on a magazine piece on the Oregon Death With Dignity law. The other Republicans were trying all manner of fakes and dodges to pander to their base and thwart the law, making things up right and left about the law and its administration. Smith was the only politician I interviewed who looked me square in the eye and said it was a religious issue for him. I may disagree with him and I'm definitely in the Sam Harris camp when it comes to finding religious views absurd, but at least Smith was telling the truth.

So it was surprising but not terribly so to hear him speak out against the war the other day. He's from one of those "good government" states.

One insight into his personality comes from the Smith Frozen Foods website He bought his grandaddy's business in Western Oregon in the 1980s and is known among us snickering Progressives as "the peapacker." But he apparently takes it seriously. And why not? Here's what they say about him, " One of Gordon Smith's earliest memories is stepping into the freezer of a pea processing plant his family owned and feeling the cold air on his face. He saw rows and rows of boxed vegetables, ready for shipment. He saw his grandfather and father at work that day, long ago in the plant. For him, it produced an image frozen in time."

As inadvertent a joke as the phrase "frozen in time" may be, it gives you an idea that this guy may be on the wrong side of many if not most issues, but he's got sincerity coming out his ass.

Nevertheless, he's too late to the Iraq war party. Whether his sincerity overrides his bad choices in supporting the Administration on the war all these years sets up a fun show when he runs for re-election in 2008. He could be beaten by ex-governor John Kitzhaber, should he run. Kitzhaber is a physician who favors cowboy boots and is getting national buzz for his push for better health care.
NOTE TO karichisholm: I never said Smith was a moderate. A careful reading of my post will reveal that i said, "If there is such a thing as the Republican center, he's in it." That's very much different from calling him a moderate.